Summary: Chapter 18: My Mother’s Life
Patricia preferred to treat any of her son’s maladies with church and prayer rather than with medicine. She felt Trevor was lucky when he fell ill on a Sunday since he could be healed at church by Jesus.
When Trevor had his hair braided he started getting more attention from girls and began dating. Patricia teased Trevor for spending more money on his hair than she spent on hers. When Trevor was young, Patricia would take their family Volkswagen to an auto shop called Mighty Mechanics when it broke down, which was often. Trevor liked spending their regular visits with the charming mechanic whom Patricia called Abie. However, that feeling changed for Trevor after Abel beat up the neighborhood bully. Trevor was concerned when Patricia told him she and Abel were going to be married. They should have known Abel’s true nature; his Tsonga name meant “Be afraid.”
Trevor’s half-brother Andrew was born a year after Patricia and Abel married. Patricia did not fit in with Abel’s family, who expected women to be subservient to men. Trevor saw that he and his mother were slowly losing their independence. Abel did not like his wife to be at church all day on Sundays, and he refused to drive Trevor and Patricia to visit Trevor’s father. Abel often came home drunk at night, and one such night, he almost burned down the house. Patricia tried to call for help, but Abel argued with her. Trevor watched the fight escalate until Abel struck Patricia across her face. Patricia had never been hit by a man before, and she did not back down. When Abel struck her again, Patricia took her sons and walked to the police station. She told them to charge her husband with assault, but they refused and allowed Abel to take his family home. Patricia’s mother, who had been beaten by her husband for years, convinced Patricia not to leave Abel. Abel was apologetic and did not hit Patricia again for many years.
Patricia used her savings to help Abel buy the Mighty Mechanics shop, but Abel was a better mechanic than he was a businessman. Soon, Patricia needed to sell her home to keep the shop running, and the family moved into the shop’s cold warehouse. Trevor preferred to sleep in the cars, rather than on the concrete floor. His schoolwork suffered because he had to work in the shop. At eleven, Trevor hated the grease that stuck to his nails, the cars he had to fix, and the bugs his family had to eat when they ran out of money to buy food. After a year, Patricia gave up and found a job as a secretary, and Abel’s shop was sold to pay off his debts. Once again, Patricia earned enough money to buy a house.
Trevor noticed a change in his mother’s parenting style. Patricia did not hit Andrew the way she had hit Trevor when he was younger. Trevor, despite being surrounded by violence, was a gentle boy. Patricia saw the love her oldest son used to build his relationships. But Abel did not change and began hitting Trevor when he was in the sixth grade. Trevor knew these beatings were different from the smacks he’d received, out of love, from his mother.
Once Patricia started working again, Abel resumed his violence toward her. Abel’s outbursts were infrequent at first, but they became more common over the years. Trevor came home one day to learn that Abel had bought a gun. Patricia feared that Abel would use it on Trevor, who was now able to defend himself. Trevor moved into a flat, near enough that he could still see his family often. Patricia, now in her forties, had another son named Isaac, and Trevor felt less welcome in his family. The beatings got so bad that Patricia moved with her youngest two sons out of the main house and into a shack in the yard. At this point, Trevor told Patricia he could no longer be part of their family if she stayed married to Abel. Trevor thought it was a simple matter of willpower, but Patricia knew that Abel would kill her if she left him.
One Sunday morning after a long separation from Patricia and his brothers, Trevor got a call from Andrew telling him that Abel had shot Patricia in the head. Trevor drove to the hospital in tears. Andrew, who seemed calm, also broke down crying when Trevor arrived. Patricia was awake and calmly awaiting surgery, more worried about her middle child than the gaping hole in her face.
Andrew explained to Trevor that Patricia had remarried after they had left Abel. She had taken her family to church, and they had returned to her new home to find Abel, who was drunk, waiting. Abel announced that he was going to kill all of them. Andrew pleaded with his father, but he saw no love in the man’s eyes. Abel pointed the gun at his sons, but Patricia jumped in front of them. A bullet hit her buttocks, and she told her sons to run. Abel tried to shoot Patricia in the head, but the gun misfired. Patricia managed to get into the car, but Abel fired one last shot through the window that hit Patricia in the head. Andrew drove her to the hospital, he explained to Trevor. At this point, Andrew was interrupted by a nurse. Patricia had cancelled her health insurance and would be transferred to a state hospital. Trevor knew that his mother would not want him to be burdened with the debt of her hospital bills, but he agreed to pay whatever it cost.
When the doctor updated Trevor and his family, he told them that the outcome was a miracle. Both bullets had missed all major arteries and organs and had left no bullet fragments. Patricia’s injuries were minimal, and she would return to work four days later. Patricia joked when Trevor cried at her bedside that night. Later they learned what had happened to Isaac, who was four at the time. Abel explained to his youngest son that he had shot Patricia because he was very sad. Abel left Isaac with a friend and planned to kill himself. A cousin who Abel visited to say goodbye told him to face what he had done, and Abel then turned himself in to the police. He made bail a month later, pled guilty, and served no time in prison.
Trevor was able to pay Patricia’s hospital bill the day she was released. He tried to explain to Patricia how lucky she had been to survive the attack with minimal injuries and no health insurance. Patricia disagreed. Jesus had given her a son who could afford to pay her hospital bill, and that was the only insurance she needed.
Analysis: Chapter 18
Patricia’s faith in Jesus, her love for her country, and the way she disciplines Trevor are all evident in the stories that Noah shares as he flashes back and forth between his childhood and young adulthood. Patricia is a major figure in the book and in Trevor’s life, but up until now most of the details that Noah shares pertain to the lessons that she teaches him, and the ways in which those lessons shape his character.
The depths of Patricia’s strength are most apparent when Noah shares her rationale for staying with Abel. This chapter includes significantly more details about his mother and about the dangerous man she married and lends insight into the reasons that she stays with Abel. As a young man, these reasons are incomprehensible to Trevor. Noah begins this chapter as he began the book, with a story that illustrates how much of their lives Patricia leaves in the hands of Jesus. By this time, he has established the devoutness of her faith and plants a red flag by divulging that Abel resents the time that Patricia spends at church. In South African society, churchgoing would seem to be an appropriate activity for a married woman and one that would not threaten her husband’s ego, but Abel wants her to stay at home. He seldomly accompanies her, proving that it is not her companionship that he desires. Most likely, as a Zulu, Abel is more concerned that others might think that his woman does not respect him.
When Abel hits Patricia for the first time, it’s clear that he is a victim to the same societal norms that Noah described earlier in the book. Abel believes that he must control Patricia but also compel her, despite her independent nature, to stay with him. Patricia’s father beat her mother, her mother accepted this behavior, and she believes that her daughter should accept it as well, as do the local police. Patricia has nowhere to go, and no choice but to go back to Abel. Earlier in the book, Noah illustrated how slow and grueling the path to home ownership in South Africa is for poor people. He documents each move that the family makes, and describes the loopholes that Patricia takes advantage of to move into a neighborhood that was previously off-limits for Black people. In this chapter, for Patricia, the loss of her home due to Abel’s mismanagement is surely the greatest loss of her life.
Abel thinks of himself as a provider, adhering to not only this masculine standard but one that says he is superior for this status. Anything that challenges Abel’s status comes with a risk of a violent reaction. When Patricia quits working at the garage and takes a job to buy another new home, she is aware that this independence will not be tolerated by Abel. Her pregnancy with Isaac is ill-timed, but she shows the same commitment to his wellbeing that she shows to her older sons, who live with her in the shack on her own property. Patricia has a desire to remain home at all costs in the same way that she did when she opted not to flee South Africa during apartheid. This time, however, the enemy is not that of a faceless police officer or a government official but instead it is Abel’s fragile ego. Patricia is aware of exactly the kind of punishment he would deliver if she defies his wishes.
Although Patricia is able to leave Abel, Trevor is so far removed from his family he is not immediately aware of her departure until Andrew tells him. Trevor barely knows Isaac, whose birth four years ago was the catalyst for distancing himself. Initially, Trevor removed himself to gain emotional distance from a situation that was too painful to witness. In the present day, Noah is a world-famous comedian, and, although it isn’t mentioned, he is well on his way to achieving success when Abel shoots Patricia. This tragedy prompts the focus to revert back to Patricia instead of Trevor, to his family instead of his own ego and success. He does not share the steps that he took or the successes that he enjoyed after his mother helped him stay out of jail when he was caught with the unregistered car. Without Patricia’s help, Trevor’s life may have ended up much like many of those whom he grew up with. This portion of the story is Patricia’s story, and the only outcome that matters to Trevor is that his mother lives.